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Round Table: How subs teams are adapting to the digital world

On 11 October, iSUBSCRiBE invited some of the UK’s leading subscriptions marketers to a round table event looking at how subscriptions departments were coping with the transition to digital. James Evelegh took notes…

By James Evelegh

The publishing world is transitioning from a print past to a digital future. Some publishers, mainly B2B, have made more progress than others, but all publishers are dotted at varying points along the road and all subs departments are having to change the way they work.

Up until now, said iSUBSCRiBE’s Don Brown, much of the focus has been on the technological developments and how the editorial product can be re-imagined for the plethora of new devices, and less has been written about how publishers actually go about marketing and selling these new digital products.

For all the publishers present, the transition was, according to IPC’s Amanda Chester very much “work in progress”. One of the publishers admitted to having already tried two different methods of working, and, come next Monday, was about to embark on a third!

No one claimed to have cracked it yet, and there was a general acceptance that what worked yesterday, might not work today and certainly wouldn’t work tomorrow. As Haymarket’s Sharon Todd said, we know “there’s a better way of doing it; we’re just trying to find it”.

For Incisive Media’s Jon Bentley, the situation was “completely fluid and you would send yourself mad looking for a Eureka moment”.

There didn’t appear to be lots of extra budget floating about to meet the new challenges. One had managed to beg, borrow or steel an extra grand here and there and another was planning to make use of her magic wand. Subs teams were being stretched by being asked to do more and more with little extra staffing resource. Team sizes were broadly speaking unchanged, although the mix of skills within the teams had changed to incorporate digital specialists.

Where the size of the digital project warranted it, staff counts would rise. At Dennis, said Richard Ayerst, when they came to launch the iPad app for the Week, a major digital initiative, two digital specialists were hired to handle the marketing. These two have now been assimilated into the broader subs team. But, said Richard, extra resource would only be made available where a significant investment is being made in the editorial product. For simple ‘page-turner’ launches, no extra resource would be made available.

Spreading the skills

In the main, the overall strategy was to hire digital specialists to work alongside the traditional print based teams and for them to gradually impart their skills to their colleagues.

The problem many found was that this cross-fertilisation was hard to achieve in practice. Many existing team members seemed happy to continue with the print related marketing, dreaming up their latest creative wheeze for an insert card, leaving all the digital stuff to the new online teams. And vice versa.

To combat this silo mentality, many publishers were organising special sessions to help spread the skills. Haymarket were staging monthly digital breakfasts, open to all and sometimes inviting along external experts to address them. Similarly, Incisive were holding weekly ‘digital clinics’.

Other silo-busting tactics being used included more imaginative seating arrangements and changing people’s job titles to help break down artificial barriers.

Haymarket had removed the word ‘subs’ from the job titles of most of Sharon’s team because it was found to be restricting. Her team now looks after all direct-to-consumer revenues, including digital one-shots, not just subs.

When it came to recruitment, digital expertise was increasingly being seen as a primary requirement when assessing applicants, especially when taking on interns. Bauer’s Chris Gadsby said, “we’re bringing in lots of young people who are social media literate, but who know nothing about the media or publishing, but who pick it up quickly.”

Of the four interns Bauer had taken on this year, two had since converted to full time roles.

Incisive had had some success bringing in people from other industries, in their case, the travel industry, which brought in some “fresh thinking” and Sharon Todd said internal recruitment could work well, as long as they exhibited the “right type of thinking”. She had recently recruited an analyst from Haymarket’s Business Intelligence team.

The elephant in the room was, of course, print. Whilst the task of bringing existing teams up to speed on digital matters would continue, the fact remained that, certainly for all the consumer publishers present, the vast majority of their revenues still come from print, not the nascent digital channel, and all publishers were faced with the juggling act of preparing for the future while preserving the present.

But while print was still, by far, the dominant route to market for most publishers, the trend to digital was clear, hence the fact that digital would continue to account for a disproportionately high amount of time for all those present.

Reliance on data

It was agreed by all that ‘data’ would be the central tool in their marketing armoury now and in the future, and in that regard, the lack of user-friendly desktop analytical tools was seen as a major hindrance.

Haymarket’s Sharon Todd referred to the considerable administrative burden placed on her team by the requirement to manipulate the data, to pick out the salient information for senior management.

Incisive’s Jon Bentley had found that much of the data analysis he had presented in the past had not gained traction with senior management, but that a breakthrough of sorts had been achieved when they devised a single metric (‘subscribers on site’) and found everyone getting enthused over that.

A number of publishers found the sheer volume of data overwhelming and many had not yet managed to make much headway in terms of exploiting behavioural data. “Terabytes of guff” neatly summed up the view of many about the usability of much of the data.

Bauer’s Chris Gadsby liked to keep it simple and focus on transactional data; for instance, ‘device type’ and ‘abandoned basket’ information; data that could help his team take concrete steps to improve outcomes.

The subscription bureau was seen as the logical repository of this data, but there was frustration expressed at what was seen as a lack of proactivity at some of the bureaux in terms of IT development and the structural weaknesses of legacy database systems.

Yet, the bureaux were in a no-win situation as publishers demanded an ever-improving service, whilst simultaneously piling continuous downward pressure on costs.

As one said, “we squeeze them and squeeze them, and then squeal when they can’t do it”.

Despite these frustrations, the majority of marketing resources at the publishers were devoted to developing the subscriber interface with their own retail sites (Bauer’s, Dennis’s, IPC’s which integrate with their bureaux’ systems.

There was widespread frustration with Apple because of what was seen as their total lack of understanding of subscriptions. The information publishers received from Apple was lamentable, hence publishers focusing on those areas of their marketing operations where they feel they can make a difference.

Bauer had been working hard to define their value proposition to subscribers. How could they encourage potential subscribers to purchase through, in their case, as opposed to Apple? What was the differentiator? Bauer’s aim is to offer subscribers purchasing through Greatmagazines, access to their subscription from any device.

It was hoped that the arrival of the Kindle Fire would introduce more competition into the market and eventually help tilt the balance of power towards the publishers and away from the device manufacturers.


The focus of the round table was clearly on digital. When then, if ever, would we be a digital-only industry?

For RBI’s Georgina Rushworth, the strategy was clear: get everyone on digital. The remaining hurdles for this B2B publisher were “bringing advertisers with us”, and the fact that, even in this B2B environment, “our customers still like print”! Hence, whilst the long term goal was digital-only, they were not prepared to force subscribers to jump before they were ready.

The importance of letting readers choose how they receive their magazine was echoed by Sharon Todd. At Haymarket, they had identified two titles that were close to the digital tipping point, but they were being very careful not to force the issue prematurely.

As you would expect, the consumer publishers saw print remaining the dominant, albeit slowly declining, route to market for many years to come.

For Bauer’s Chris Gadsby, they were not “anywhere near digital-only yet”. Indeed, Bauer had recently demonstrated their belief in the future of print with the purchase of Australian magazine publisher, ACP.

Chris thought there might well be less print in ten years’ time and that, perhaps, a greater proportion of that would be subscription based rather than newsstand. On the digital side, he felt there might be a change in the way magazine content was packaged, with less focus on ‘editions’.

Press Holding’s Lucy Vincent agreed that the ‘edition’ format was under threat, reminding everyone of this summer’s confusion over Jennifer Anniston, when several weekly magazines went to press sporting cover lines announcing her split from her boyfriend, only to be left with egg on their faces the next day when Anniston’s publicist announced her engagement to said boyfriend, just as the shelves were being stacked. Oops.

Dennis’s Richard Asyerst agreed that print would continue to be key in the future, although the gap with digital would narrow.

As someone else pointed out, even Future, who were pursuing their digital strategy more aggressively than most, had recently launched a print magazine, Mollie Makes, off the back of one of their digital properties.

iSUBSCRiBE’s Andrew Burge nailed his colours to the print mast, which he felt had a long life ahead of it, although he did caution publishers from taking their eye off the ball. He had sensed a deterioration in the quality of some print magazines, which he felt were being starved of resource as publishers increasingly obsess over digital.

But, so much is unknown. The iPad, in which so much hope is vested, is just over two years old. Many digital editions have seen impressive numbers at launch, but have not yet been tested at renewal. How many digital subscribers will renew? Low renewal rates could mean, back to the drawing board.

So, were our subscriptions marketers upbeat or downcast? On the whole, upbeat, very.

Richard Ayerst said that, whether print or digital, “subscriptions as a business model was in a very healthy state.” Georgina Rushworth looked forward to the “multi-platform future, where multi-skilled subs teams would have the tools to allow them to act more quickly.” Sharon Todd looked forward to the day when the tools and support technology available to subs marketers matched the sophistication of what was available to consumers. Jon Bentley said that, in the future, subs teams would just have to accept that “every day is different; that their jobs were all about problem solving.” He, for one, was very excited about it.

The iSUBSCRiBE Round Table was chaired by Don Brown and was attended by Richard Ayerst, Jon Bentley, Amanda Chester, Chris Gadsby, Georgina Rushworth, Sharon Todd and Lucy Vincent. Also present were iSUBSCRiBE’s Andrew Burge, Claire Sharp and Hannah Wood.